Café de Leche, a 9-year-old coffee shop in Highland Park, is now the first independent coffee roaster in the neighborhood. Owners Matt and Anya Schodorf, a married couple who have lived in Highland Park for 18 years, began roasting coffee nine months ago with beans imported from Nicaragua, Anya’s home country.
For her husband, roasting coffee in-house is about refining his craft.
“[Roasting your own coffee] isn’t unlike going to a restaurant versus shopping at a grocery store. You can pick a place to go to get great food, or you can make your own food. You get to pick your own ingredients and it will always be your voice, it will always be unique, no one else can do it like you,” Matt Schodorf said.
Schodorf said he is the sole roaster at Café de Leche, where the average batch size is around 10 pounds. Everything is done by hand and requires special attention. The quality of the green bean makes all the difference in the taste of the cup, which is why the cafe chooses to have a direct trade relationship with their farmers who are from a northern region in Nicaragua called Jinotega.
“My wife is from Nicaragua, and we have a friend who owns coffee farms in Nicaragua, but more importantly, produces coffee for over 100 other local farmers in Jinotega,” Schodorf said.
Café de Leche’s relationship with its farmers is intimate, but not cheap, according to Matt Schodorf. He said that the quality of the bean also means the cafe only provides medium roast coffees; roasting the beans too dark can mask the original flavor of the bean, which compromises the quality, according to Schodorf.
“[If you’re Starbucks] you can basically buy a lower quality bean, because you’re going to over-roast it. That is not to come down hard on Starbucks, they’re great at branding that [dark] flavor profile, but I can guarantee you they’re not paying what we are for coffee,” Schodorf said.
The Schodorfs said they flew to Nicaragua before the roasting process began nine months ago and met farmers within the Jinotega region. According to Café de Leche manager Carolina Ibarra, the fact that the cafe’s coffee is sustainably and equitably sourced is essential to a successful coffee roasting process.
“There’s so many roasters around, but how many of them are bringing beans from direct trade? Or have a relationship with the farmers? [That] is the most important part,” Ibarra said.
Ibarra said she grew up on a coffee farm in Colombia and has experience with the roasting process.
“I know what it is [like] back there, and I know the coffee industry. For me, it’s interesting to see the contrast with what it is here, with the people who consume the coffee and the people who work with the coffee,” Ibarra said.
Café de Leche started roasting coffee to have more creative control over the taste of their coffee and to provide an otherwise absent service to the Highland Park community, according to Matt Schodorf. To Brian Duffy, a Friday morning customer at Café de Leche, the coffee stands out.
“I know good coffee when I taste it,” Duffy said. “And I will be coming back here.”